Saturday, November 17, 2012

Attitudes to Abortion in Korea

In August this year South Korea's constitutional court upheld a 59 year long ban on having abortions.  South Korea banned abortion in 1953 with exceptions for rape, incest or severe genetic disorders. 

This may come as a surprise for anyone living in Korea who keeps their eyes and ears open. With my close connections in Korea I have known a number of Korean women of varying ages who have had abortions.

This week abortion hit the headlines with a case of an Indian woman in Ireland who was refused an abortion despite being in severe pain from the pregnancy.  She later died of septicemia brought on by an obviously invalid pregnancy.  So are Korean attitudes to abortion similar to those in Ireland, a country which has the same laws against abortion?  The answer is that, strangely, despite the similarity in guidelines, the two countries are poles apart.

Abortions in Korea take place in hospitals and apparently sometimes without anesthetic because hospitals have to register each time they use it, and since abortion is supposed to be illegal they do not want to do this.

The most shocking thing about abortion in Korea, however, appears to be the flippancy and the ease with which it is undertaken, made even more surprising because it is against the law.

UN statistics estimate abortions to run at about 20 per 1000 births in Korea, which is exactly the same as the US (there must be a lot of rape, incest and/or genetic disorders in Korea as abortion is legal in most of the US), but in Korea many abortions go unreported.  I would shudder to think of the actual figures; this is a problem that could be getting out of hand.  The behind closed doors and prudish nature of the Korean people towards sex could also be causing a lack of knowledge in the family planning department.  Fear of family reactions to news of an unwanted pregnancy or a pregnancy before marriage may also push young people to have abortions in secret.

Back in England I had known a few people who had abortions and it literally wreaked havoc to their mental health, causing some level of depression in everyone I had known to have the procedure.  The women I knew who had abortions were guilt-ridden and clearly emotionally damaged by the whole experience.  What I have seen in Korea does not match the consequences of abortion that I saw in England.

The process itself is obviously never an easy experience and as a man, and someone who has not experienced it through a partner, I cannot comment on the procedure itself but I cannot imagine it is pleasant. 

But it is not so much the speed of the physical recovery that is shocking but the mental recovery and the relative ease with which some of the Korean women, and their partners I have heard about, come to their decision.  Sometimes the reasons for their abortions have seemed of mere inconvenience rather than a genuine problem of bringing up the child.

Being a non-religious man and erring slightly liberal in my political opinion, I am actually in favour of pro-choice and not of a ban on abortions generally, but it still troubles me when it looks like such an important decision is taken without too much due care and attention and appears to not overly perturb the person in question.

Of course, it should not be a surprise that Koreans do not follow this law banning abortions.  Korean people are regularly quite selective with the supposed requirements of their government.  Think of traffic laws (as I have said before there must be some), employment laws - such as those requiring Koreans to work no more than 40 hours a week unless they are paid overtime (there is a loophole that says maybe 52 hours but they even exceed that) - and rules on dog meat which Korean Food Sanitary Law states is an illegal food ingredient and the Seoul Metropolitan government categorizes as 'repugnant food'.  All of these rules and regulations are flouted everyday in plain view of anyone who cares to look and not bury their heads in the sand.

It is the social attitude towards it all, though, that is most disturbing of all.  To my eyes it is as clear as day that the value and sanctity of life is not as high here, whether it be human or animal.  This also includes the care and treatment people and non-humans receive during life and not in matters of just life and death.

For another example of this, I needed to not look any further than my own Korean family.  My uncle in-law used to have two Jindo dogs (a famous and traditional Korean breed)  for a number of years.  While they were alive they were rarely if ever let off the short leash that they were tied to outside their house in all weather (it can get seriously cold in Korea in winter).  The younger dog would still get excited when anyone came near, desperate for attention, but for the older dog it did seem that his life had broken him and taken away all of his spirit.  To make a sad story even sadder still, I went to the house for dinner a couple of months ago and the dogs were not there, they had both been sold to the dog meat trade.

Can we seriously think that people would do the same to a pet in the West?  There are obviously cases of abuse but these are among the poor, the uneducated, and the trouble-makers in our societies.  In the case of my uncle in-law and his family they are a perfectly pleasant and nice Korean family in every other respect.  It is clear that this is a cultural attitude and not a case of a few rotten eggs, that's the difference.  A further reason for thinking this way was because of the amount of students I have taught who had dogs in the past but told of how their parents had sold them for dog meat also.

The case of Koreans eating dogs is old hat and to be fair not many people do it anymore, but it has always been the treatment of them that has aggravated me more.  They too often display a callous lack of respect for the animal's life and I believe this also shows in their attitudes towards abortion.

Bring up the issue of dogs around a Korean and they often point to the hypocrisy the West shows towards animals, after all we keep pigs (and other animals) in small pens and kill them, with the average pig life having vastly more suffering than a pet dog in Korea.  They are in a way correct, but whilst logically I must agree, I have a moral intuition that there really is something special about a dog.  We have had a faithful partnership with them for thousands of years and it shows in how we dote on them and vice versa.  It feels like the betrayal of a trusted friends and I feel this guilt on behalf of everyone that does not care about their welfare.

The same argument can be made with abortion.  I recognize, and agree with the views of  people like Peter Singer who draw a comparison between abortions and killing animals for meat.  He says that a cow, for example, will suffer far more than an unborn fetus with a nervous system that is not fully developed.  Therefore, if we are so concerned about a fetus we should be, in fact, more concerned about the cow.  Again, there is great logic in this and perhaps he is 100% right and that it is just because we all merely favour our own species, but I have a niggling sense inside that we should not be so frivolous with the unborn, and abortions, although allowed, should be as a last resort with all the alternatives carefully considered.  This is not the feeling I get from many of the people I have talked to and learned about in Korea, who must for obvious reasons remain anonymous.

Of some of the older Korean women I have knowledge of, some have had multiple abortions and although I have obviously no idea what is going on inside their heads, I don't sense that much remorse in them, at least certainly not on the level that I could see in women in England.

Of course, you could throw the argument on its head by saying that we in the West are too caught up with the issue of the sanctity of human life.  The West has a Christian tradition and even if people are atheists like me, much of our moral intuitions are shaped by almost 2000 years of Christian culture.  Before the Christians, infanticide was a common cultural practice in ancient Greece and Rome, where parents would leave their sometimes only slightly disabled children on hilltops to die of exposure or even throw them off of cliffs.  This wasn't done because they had no heart or moral sense - indeed the Greeks, especially, had a famous and solid grasp of morals that was much ahead of their time - they simply had a different cultural philosophy.

In Christianity, the church ingrained a special value upon human life, even from the moment of conception which puts an extremely high value on all life.  This high value might seem a wonderful thing, but has consequences itself in stopping us from ending lives (even our own) when a high degree of suffering is making life not worth living, and obstructing possible life saving (and life improving) scientific research, such as that done using human stem cells.

Korea does not have a Christian history imprinted on the cultural make up, it has a Confucian tradition which values social harmony and the group.  With this way of thinking, individuals are not necessarily special, it is the group that comes first.  Under this line of thought it is therefore understandable to me how it might be easier for some Korean people to handle abortions with less emotional importance.

There are obviously Korean people and indeed Western people who reject or accept certain parts of their cultures to greater and lesser degrees and this is not applicable to everyone, but the pattern of behaviour cannot go unnoticed.

I am not a fan of Christianity and think we need to move on from it more quickly than we are doing, but it did give us this important sense of value of life, which although needs tweaking a little, is nonetheless quite precious.  Maybe, however, we could do with meeting Korean culture somewhere in the middle and perhaps the guilt experienced by many women from abortion is really quite unnecessary, a hangover from deep lessons of Christian inspired history and while abortion should never be taken lightly it could be thought of a little less gravely than it is currently in the West.

Update: Here are some sources that validate some of the conclusions which may seem to have been made from anecdotal evidence in the article.  These sources would seem to back up my observations.

Below are a number of articles that may validate my point about the casual nature of abortions in Korea.
Below is taken from the above link, an admittedly fairly old study (1996), but does seem to back up what I have noticed.
C. Abortion
In Korean law, an induced abortion, defined as the removing of a fetus before the twenty-eighth week of gestation, is allowed in cases of genetically inherited diseases, transmitted diseases, incest, rape, and those cases that may greatly harm maternal health. However, it has been used as a form of contraception in Korea, and the number of induced abortions runs between 1.5 to 2 million cases annually. There are 600,000 newborns in Korea each year, and the number of abortions is nearly three times the number of deliveries. The total number of abortions in Korea is the second highest in the world. One out of two married women has experienced an abortion. Eighty percent of abortions are done for gender-selection purposes, using an ultrasound scan to ascertain the gender and then selectively abort female fetuses. Those who seek abortions for reasons defined by the law account for only 20 percent of all abortions. Unmarried women have 18.5 percent of the induced abortions; 26.5 percent of these women were between ages 16 and 20. The overwhelming majority of women who had an abortion, 77.9 percent of married women and 71.3 percent of unmarried women, reported satisfaction with the results of the abortion. This reflects, perhaps, the fact that abortion has become commonplace in Korea (PPFK 1996).


  1. Hey there. Great blog, but reading over this post, I couldn't help but notice a few points that I felt were founded on erroneous assumptions.

    The first is the dog thing. It can sometimes be easy to forget living in the first world that the mere concept of having a "pet" is in itself a luxury and a Western concept. Even the idea that the dog is an altogether more noble and worthy creature than a pig or a cow that you bring up ("We have had a faithful partnership with them for thousands of years and it shows in how we dote on them and vice versa.") is a foreign idea that was imported into Korea not long ago. Korea is, at heart, an agrarian culture and in an agrarian culture, you don't keep an animal around unless you have some practical plan to profit from it later somehow, usually in the form of meat or labor. That uncle was probably waiting to sell that dog for dog meat from day one without telling you about it. I don't think it's reflective of a deep seated callousness or disregard for life. Older Koreans just honestly don't think of animals as companions and they certainly don't see dogs are being better than a chicken.

    The other point is your idea that Koreans are just altogether less appreciative of life because the culture lacks a Christian heritage. While I agree that the Korean culture is somewhat less sensitive to the issue of life than most Western cultures, I think it has less to do with Christianity and probably more to do with the country's history of poverty and hardship. Poverty has a way of hardening hearts, especially when it comes in the immediate aftermath of a devastating war. Only about two generations back, Korea was a place where survival at any cost took precedence over things like sympathy and kindness. I don't think anyone likes to think of it this way but the truth is, human goodness is all too often a form of luxury. In 1960s Korea, if you saw someone having a seizure in a bath tub, you threw in your laundry. An entire group of people cannot just reverse something like that in less than 50 years.

    1. Thanks for the comment.

      You make an excellent point about the history of poverty and hardship in Korea, and I kinda wish I had included that in the post. You are absolutely right, goodness does come out of basically having enough money and having an easy life. If you can scrape enough food together every day you are hardly going to worry about the finer points of morality, survival is what is important.

      I think Christianity merely promoted an individual way of thinking which I think is more conducive to human rights and valuing each and every person. In a group culture I can see logic in treating individuals badly if it benefits the group, which is what I quite often see in Korea. I think on reflection your conclusion carries more weight than mine, but mine plays a smaller part i think.

      On the dogs issue, i think our relationship goes deeper than just culture. Scientific research shows that dogs have been in our company so long that they have evolved certain characteristics that aid in a good relationship; they are one of the few, maybe only, animals to be able to read human emotions and body language and there is even more very interesting evidence that the connection is very strong, stronger than mere cultural attitudes. This bbc documentary is really interesting and gives all the info:

      I think dogs are just out of moral sphere that the moral duties in their culture command. I think their morals are more duty based than empathy based. Dogs are just not part of the group. The poor history of Korea also doesn't help as they would have been seen as a food source, they had to eat something, right?

    2. Link i posted is not good, just search 'BBC Horizon - Secret life of the dog'.

  2. Very interesting documentary. But I have to say, even after watching it, I'm still having a hard time being convinced that the attitude towards dogs isn't at CORE rooted in culture. Dogs had to be bred by humans to become ideal companions, keep in mind, and there aren't many pet breeds originating from Korea for a reason, barring the very interesting idea presented that dogs allowed agricultural societies to prosper. Which may very well be true, the documentary certainly presented its case well and convinced me, but I think that timeframe goes back way too far to be of much use in our particular discussion. Again, the idea of keeping around animals, dogs especially, as friendly companions without expecting any utility in return is a very foreign one to the Korean culture, at least partly because feeding animals food that could be fed to humans is seen as essentially immoral, which I guess doesn't do much to disprove your point. But again, remember that pets in general are a luxury. As you yourself pointed out, when you're starving, anything that's meat has to be considered edible. A lot of the flaws in the Korean culture are ones that, in a poorer, less developed nation, are forgiven much more easily (clannishness, xenophobia/quasi-fascistic nationalism, animal cruelty, somewhat unhealthy family structures etc.). It's sometimes easy to forget that Korea hasn't been a developed, globally competitive industrial power for more than 4 decades.

    There's an interesting Korean film that deals with this very topic. It's called "Barking Dogs Never Bite" and while it's not a documentary, I often find that well made fiction can cut deeper into a culture's psyche than a simple documentation of reality. A huge theme within the story is the Korean culture struggling with the place of dogs in our society. The protagonist finds himself enraged by the amount of money and adoration that rich people lavish on their dogs when he, a human being, is struggling, lonely, and in desperate need of some of that attention and love. You'll find that many Koreans share this sentiment, although very few do to the extreme that this character does (Okay, I'll stop spoiling it now! ;)).

    I hope I'm not coming off as too argumentative. I really do love your blog and think that many of your observations are spot-on. I just disagree with this one particular idea that the relationship that exists between dogs and man is universal and that Koreans are particularly cruel for treating dogs just like any other farm animal. By the way, I myself love the heck out of dogs so don't take any of this personally.

    1. Don't worry about disagreeing with me, I can assure you I welcome it. Another perspective, that is well argued, is very valuable as i think having your beliefs questioned is important. You do it politely and reasonably. Some people on other sites that have published my blogs or articles have called me all the names you can think of and made all sorts of assumptions of me that are totally false and often quite scathing. I respect your opinion and the way you have given it.

      I will look up that Korean film, but i think we are actually quite compatible in our ideas. I think that it is true that we have a natural affection and close relationship with the dog, and i think that even shows in Korea. People still have dogs as pets, but they are treated in a very different way and i think that is where your claim comes in. I think their culture doesn't encourage a close relationship because of the recent history of poverty and perhaps might have something to do with dogs being outside of their moral duties. Our culture amplifies the bond between human and dogs through years of relative wealth and our ability to humanize them and treat them as individuals like people.

      Poverty is important and often related to animal cruelty and the first source I gave in the article testifies to this in even our own culture, so Korean history is a massive part of it. Perhaps kindness to dogs is not rooted universally like you say but I think a there is a connection that is closer than with any other animal.

      Or it could just be that I am a sucker for our furry friends.

      Thanks for commenting once again, maybe I should give the subject of dogs a whole blog post to do it justice.

  3. What's the official reason why the government bans abortion? Surely not some Christian reason?

    1. I don't know of an official reason, but I believe the original law was heavily influenced by the USA when the first governments were being put together after the Korean War (it can't just be a coincidence that abortion was made illegal in 1953). I think that American Christian thinking did play a role in the making of the law. As to why the law hasn't been rescinded, I can only speculate; perhaps lawmakers feel that it might make people behave worse as a result, perhaps also in a place where people aren't having enough children the government also don't want to be seen as encouraging terminations. Maybe they just don't want to upset the status quo, I don't know.

  4. And yet despite the ruling, Korea still has one of the highest abortion rates in the developed world. It is so common that it is routinely shown as a plot device in Korean TV dramas.

    1. It is basically a law only in writing. No one takes it seriously at all, in fact there are many laws like this in Korea.


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